Hit Me Page 16

“It’ll be way past Jenny’s bedtime. Anyway, I left the pickup in long-term parking.”

“So what’s there for me to do?”

“You could leave a light on.”

“I could. And there’ll be a fresh pot of coffee waiting for you. They don’t make it with chicory up there, do they?”

“They don’t.”

“In that case,” she said, “I guess you’ll be glad to get home.”


The parlor floor of the Connoisseurs, half a flight up from street level, was given over to the club’s offices, along with their extensive philatelic library. The meeting was held on the second floor, with food and drinks arrayed on a table in a room at the front of the building; a room for displays and lectures was at the rear. Keller made himself a light Dewar’s and soda and helped himself to cheese and crackers and salted nuts while Feldspar introduced him to various members, all of whom seemed more than happy to have him in their midst.

“A general worldwide collector,” said one man, whose name Keller recognized from articles in Linn’s. “The wonderful thing about it is that there’s always something to buy. And that’s also the horrible thing about it—there’s always something to buy.”

Keller figured he’d remember that one. But he missed a lot at first because his mind was largely occupied with figuring out how the club could provide access to Thessalonian House. There was a stairway leading to the upper floors, although a velvet rope indicated it was off-limits. Still, if he found a way to conceal himself in a men’s room when the meeting broke up, the velvet rope would hardly stop him from ascending to the top floor, and from there he ought to be able to get onto the roof.

And then what? If all of these buildings were tenements, they might have been built right up against one another, enabling an adventurous fellow to spring from one roof to another. But that only worked if the buildings in question were the same height, and it seemed to him that the monastery was taller by a story. And both structures were on a block in Murray Hill that had never been given over to tenements, and the gap between this building and O’Herlihy’s was almost certainly one that not even Nijinsky could span.

And if he somehow found himself on the monastery’s roof? Then what?

No, forget the roof. The club surely had access to the rear courtyard, from the basement if not from the parlor floor, so that’s where he could direct his efforts, if indeed he could hide out while everybody else went home. The club’s rear exit would be locked, but fire laws assured that they could be opened from within. And there’d be a rear door for the monastery, and if he could work out a way to open it, why then he’d be in the basement of the monastery, surrounded by cellar-dwelling monks wondering who he was and what in hell he was doing there.

That was as far as he got before the formal meeting began. Then the guest speaker began talking and showing his PowerPoint presentation, and Keller had the good fortune to get caught up in it and, at least for the time being, forget all about Father Paul Vincent O’Herlihy and the impregnable fortress that kept the man out of harm’s way.

Thursday morning, Keller woke up early. During his shower he realized that he felt good, and wondered why. He decided that somehow, during the night, he’d resigned himself to the failure of his assignment, and would be glad simply to be getting home.

He found the same food cart as yesterday, ordered the same breakfast of croissant and coffee, and told himself he’d just saved another $30. And yesterday, by God, he’d fed himself all day for the couple of dollars breakfast cost him. The coffee and sandwiches at Peachpit had been a satisfactory lunch, and he’d skipped supper after having enjoyed the food and drink at the Connoisseurs. And now, while he enjoyed feeding his trim body a light breakfast, the plump and stately P. V. O’Herlihy would already be pouring the first of today’s whiskey down his throat while he prepared to sweat out yesterday’s, and—

Wait a minute.

He dropped the remains of his croissant in the trash, followed it with his unfinished coffee. No time to waste. Things to do, people to see.

Alphabet City had already changed substantially when Keller was last there, its nasty tenements getting rehabbed left and right for young monied tenants. Now it was even harder to recall what a foul pit it had once been.

But he was comforted to see it was still a place to cop, if you could use your eyes and knew how to comport yourself. Keller, on East 5th Street between Avenues C and D, watched business being done, and got into character. He picked out the right man to approach and braced him.

“Got that,” the fellow said. “Say you want a set of works, too? You sure ’bout that? Nobody shoots this shit, man. These downs, they ain’t like lady or smack. You shoot up, you gone get abscesses.”

“It’s for a friend,” Keller told him.

“The very best,” the man said reverently. “It’s not a single malt, mind you. Some of the special-batch single malts can get up there in price, but what we have here is a blend of several malt whiskeys, aged for an astonishing sixty years.”

“And you say it’s five hundred dollars?”

“A towering sum for a bottle of Scotch,” the man admitted. He was wearing the vest and trousers of a three-piece gray suit, with a fresh white shirt and what Keller had to think was the tie of a good regiment. His hair was styled and his mustache trimmed, and he looked just right for his role behind the counter of a Madison Avenue purveyor of fine wines and spirits.

“The price,” he continued, “is ten times that of any number of truly excellent Scotches. But to keep it in perspective, we’ve any number of bottles of wine for which we’d have to get three or four times as much, and some that are quite stratospheric in price. A Latour of the right vintage, a Lafite Rothschild—and to open such a bottle is to finish it. An hour or two and you’ve emptied it, whereas a liter of whiskey can be best enjoyed a dram at a time, over months or even years. And every time your man has his sip, he’s reminded of the generosity of the giver.”

“It certainly looks expensive,” Keller said.

“At the very least, the packaging is equal to the contents. Notice the bottle is sealed with lead over its twist-to-open cork stopper. Notice the wooden casket that holds the bottle, brass-bound and equipped with its own tiny brass key. It looks not only expensive but special. One glance and the recipient cannot fail to be aware of the high esteem in which you hold him.”

“Well, that’s important,” Keller said, and drew out his wallet.

What was called for, Keller thought, was a Bunsen burner. And if he were back in his high school chemistry lab, he’d have the use of one. But he was in his room at the Savoyard, and had to make do with a candle.

He’d opened all fifteen of the purple-and-yellow capsules, and their contents pretty much filled the steel serving spoon. He’d bought it, and the little votive candle as well, at a housewares store. The spoon had been paired with a serving fork, which he’d discarded on the way back to the hotel. The candle came in a little glass container, and the Hebrew lettering on its paper label suggested it was some sort of Jewish memorial light.

He added a few drops of tap water to the grains of powder, then held the spoon in the candle’s flame. A Bunsen burner couldn’t have served him any better; the powder liquefied, and he was able to draw up almost all of it into the hypodermic syringe.

Now the bottle. Remove the lead seal? No, he’d never get it back just right. Easier to go right through the seal and the cork beneath it. Would it reach? Yes, easily, and he depressed the plunger all the way.

After he’d rinsed out both spoon and syringe, he had a look at the bottle. There was a visible pinhole in the lead seal. He could probably let it go, but could he fix it?

The lead extended almost two inches down the neck of the bottle. Keller helped himself to a small piece of the lowest portion, used the spoon and the candle to melt it, and used the softened lead to patch the top of the seal. The pinhole was gone.

He placed the bottle in its handsome wooden container, fastened the little lock. Reached for the wrapping paper.


Dear Father O’Herlihy,

First I must apologize for my intrusion into your life. I should never have bothered you, especially at a difficult time. Although my memory seemed real to me, you helped me to see that it was false, and I find myself wondering how many others have been unjustly smeared as a result of such false memories.

But I must thank you for removing the veil. I now understand what really happened, and that is the first step toward recovery. I feel much better already.

So I hope you will accept this gift as a token of apology and gratitude. I hope it brings you closure equal to mine.

Yours in Christ,

Timothy Michael Hannan

Keller looked over what he’d written out on a sheet of hotel stationery. He added a set of quotation marks around memory in the third sentence, and frowned at the last line. Closure? Oh, it was cute enough, but was cute what was wanted here? He crossed it out, and considered other last lines, and rejected them all. Was anything needed after gratitude? Not really.

On the front of the card he’d bought it said THANK YOU!, the words surrounded by unidentifiable flowers, and inside he copied his amended draft, using handwriting quite different from his own. The letters were small and carefully formed, and he felt they made a nice match with the voice and manner he’d given young Hannan.

Near the end, he hesitated. Yours in Christ. Was that too much?

Oh, the hell with it. He left it in.

Keller, carrying a shopping bag and wearing a brand-new short-sleeved shirt with a button-down collar, let the Savoyard’s doorman flag a cab for him. In the cab he put on the plain dark blue tie he’d tucked in the bag, checking the rearview mirror to get the knot right.

Still in the bag, along with the gift-wrapped bottle of Scotch, was a billed cap the same medium blue as the shirt. The clerk who’d sold it to him had called it a Greek fisherman’s cap, but to Keller it looked like something a messenger might wear.

The cab dropped him at the corner of 36th and Madison, and once it had driven off he put the cap on his head, tucked the package under his arm, and dropped the empty shopping bag in a trash basket. Then he walked straight to Thessalonian House, where he finally got the chance to use the brass knocker. It was satisfying, and enough time passed so that he was about to do it again, when the door opened to reveal a plump little monk in a nut-brown robe.

“Express rush delivery,” said Keller, in Timothy Hannan’s voice. “For Abbot Paul O’Herlihy. You’ll make sure he gets it right away, won’t you?”

Two blocks from the monastery, Keller ditched the Greek fisherman’s cap and caught another cab back to his hotel. He took a quick shower, put on a clean shirt, finished packing, and went downstairs to check out. He shook off the doorman and walked, arriving at the Peachpit offices in plenty of time for a pre-session sandwich and coffee.

Before things got underway, he went to the men’s room and locked himself in a stall, where he had a chance to count the cash in his money belt. He had a little over $12,000, and it was okay with him if he spent every cent of it.

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